Anatomy of an appeal
It may be that Brandon Beckwith has gotten away with murder, at least so far. It may be that we just stopped an innocent man from serving an 18-to-life sentence. One thing we can say for sure: an infelicitous question on direct examination gives Beckwith one more chance at beating the rap that he killed Eric Copley four years ago.
Like too many young black men in the inner city, Copley's death passed without much notice. Yeah, according to this story, there was a community vigil a few days after his body was found underneath a car. And from the high school graduation picture in the article, he was a good-looking 19-year-old kid. But spend some time on the Internet, and that's about all you'll find.
Two and a half years later, Beckwith was charged with the killing, along with Michael Hall and Sharvaise Robinson, the State's theory being that Beckwith had Hall set up Copley to come to a certain house, and when he did, the three were waiting to rob him. Copley apparently tried to make a run for it; he was killed by a single shot in the back, which penetrated his heart. After the trio was indicted, Robinson rolled over on the other two, in return for a sweetheart plea to obstruction of justice. Beckwith and Hall were given separate trials -- since Hall had made statements implicating Beckwith, there was a Bruton problem -- and Beckwith was tried first. When Robinson testified at his trial, this is how it went:
Q. All right. Did you speak to Michael -- just answer yes or no, that night, about the Eric Copley's homicide?
Q. All right. Now, had you -- when you heard about Eric's death, did you have any information concerning as to who did it?
Q. All right. Tell us about that.
A. Well, he said Brandon did it.
Needless to say, that turns out to be the pivotal moment in the 8th District's decision two weeks ago. Everybody agreed that the evidence was inadmissible, so the remaining question was whether the judge should have granted a mistrial. The court decided that depended on how strong the remaining evidence was, and here it wasn't enough. The decision is very fact-specific, and with the court stressing that its decision is based on "the unique circumstances" of this case, there's a tendency to think that Beckwith's precedential value is minimal. That's true, but that doesn't mean it can't teach us some things. Like...
Abuse of discretion is not an insurmountable obstacle. That's the standard of review for appeal from denial of a motion for mistrial, and it's a tough one. The case for using that standard is strongest when we're dependent on the trial judge's ability to appraise and evaluate the evidence, and a mistrial clearly calls that into play: the judge is certainly going to have much more appreciation for how Robinson's testimony impacted the trial. There's a new voir dire routine that prosecutors are using to defuse the aura surrounding "reasonable doubt," telling jurors that juries are finding guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in trials every day. Well, courts of appeals don't reverse on abuse of discretion every day, but they do reverse on occasion. In fact, looking back over the cases I've read where a judge's decision is affirmed on that standard, very rarely does the court evince any qualms about the judge's decision. It may be that the standard isn't as outcome-determinative as we've though: if the court thinks the judge screwed up, it's going to reverse, regardless of the standard of review. Which brings us to
Facts matter. We spend a lot of time on jury research and discussions of how juries reach verdicts, but I'd like to see some in-depth research on appellate decision-making. We like to believe that judges simply plug the facts into the law, but we also like to believe that jurors will keep an open mind until all the evidence is in. Doesn't happen; we begin forming an impression as to the outcome from the moment we start acquiring information about it. That's how the mind works in a jury room, and I think it's fair to suggest that it works the same way in the appellate chambers. The judge is going to get his first impression about the case from the assignments of error and the issues presented -- and if you're doing appeals, work on the latter, especially, to show just how badly your client got screwed -- but the second, and much bigger, impression is going to come with the statement of facts. Sure, it's going to be tough to come up with a positive spin on the case when your client's semen was found in the underwear of an 8-year-old, but the trial evidence usually isn't going to be that open-and-shut. You've got a much better chance of winning an appeal if the client thinks your client got a raw deal or if they think he's actually innocent, and if you've got both, it's pretty much a lock. Work on it.
A solid grasp of the rules of evidence is indispensable. This isn't hard to figure out: the result of a trial is determined by the evidence that's introduced, so spend some time thinking about the evidence you want to introduce, and what evidence you don't. The prosecutor here was a skilled and experienced one, but I'm sorry: this is the key witness in your case, and you have to have thought it through to the point of knowing that essentially asking your witness, "tell us what information you had about who committed this crime" isn't a good idea.
Go with your gut. Whatever import the panel attached to the trial judge's discretion was largely dissipated by this:
it is of significant note that the trial judge's initial inclination was to grant a mistrial as he expressed serious doubt that any instruction could cure the material prejudice of Sharvaise's statement.
I've often felt that the single most important quality for a judge is a good sense of fairness. That's what the law is intended to be, and if you've got a good gut instinct for what a fair result is, you can figure out how the law should take you there. Yeah, that's more results-oriented decision-making. But the more I do this, the more I think that's how it works.